Is a Low Platelet Count?
Blood is made up of several types of cells. These cells float in
a liquid called plasma. The types of blood cells are:
- red blood cells
- white blood cells
- platelets, or thrombocytes
When your skin is injured or broken, platelets clump together and
form clots to stop the bleeding. When you don’t have enough platelets in your
blood, your body cannot form clots.
A low platelet count may also be called thrombocytopenia. This condition can
range from mild to severe, depending on its underlying cause. For some, the symptoms
can include severe bleeding and are possibly fatal if they’re not treated.
Other people may not experience any symptoms.
Typically, a low platelet count is the result of a medical condition,
like leukemia, or certain drugs. The treatment usually addresses the condition
causing the thrombocytopenia.
Are the Symptoms of a Low Platelet Count?
Whether or not you experience symptoms of a low platelet count depends
on your platelet count.
Mild cases, such as when a low platelet count is caused by
pregnancy, usually don’t cause any symptoms. More severe cases may cause
uncontrollable bleeding, which requires immediate medical attention.
If you have a low platelet count, you may experience:
- red, purple, or brown bruises, which are called “purpura”
- a rash with small red or purple dots called
- bleeding gums
- bleeding from wounds that lasts for a prolonged
period or doesn’t stop on its own
- heavy menstrual bleeding
- bleeding from the rectum
- blood in the stools
- blood in the urine
In more serious cases, you may bleed internally. The symptoms of
internal bleeding include:
- blood in the urine
- blood in the stool
- bloody or very dark vomit
Talk to your doctor immediately if you experience any signs of
Rarely, this condition may lead to bleeding in your brain. If you
have a low platelet count and experience headaches or any neurological
problems, tell your doctor right away.
Are the Causes of a Low Platelet Count?
The possible causes of a low platelet count include:
Bone Marrow Problems
Your bone marrow is the spongy tissue inside the bone. It’s where
all the components of blood, including platelets, are produced. If your bone
marrow isn’t producing enough platelets, you’ll have a low platelet count. The
causes of low platelet production include:
- aplastic anemia
- a vitamin B-12 deficiency
- a folate deficiency
- an iron deficiency
- viral infections, including HIV, Epstein-Barr
virus, and chickenpox
- exposure to chemotherapy, radiation, or toxic
- consuming too much alcohol
Each platelet lives about 10 days in a healthy body. A low
platelet count can also be a result of the body destroying too may platelets. This
can be due to side effects of certain medications, include diuretics and
anti-seizure medications. It can also be a symptom of:
- hypersplenism, or an enlarged spleen
- an autoimmune disorder
- a bacterial infection in the blood
- idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP)
- thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP)
- hemolytic uremic syndrome
- disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC)
Is a Low Platelet Count Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects a low platelet count, they’ll first
perform a physical examination. During the exam, your doctor will check your
body for any unusual bruising or evidence of petechiae, which is a rash that
often accompanies a low platelet count.
Your doctor may also feel your abdomen to check for an enlarged
spleen, which can cause a low platelet count. You may also be asked if you have
any family history of bleeding disorders since these types of disorders can run
To diagnose this condition, your doctor needs to do a complete
blood count (CBC) test. This blood test looks at the amount of blood cells in
your blood. It will tell your doctor if your platelet count is lower than it
Your doctor may also wish to have your blood tested for platelet
antibodies. These are proteins that your body produces and that destroy
platelets. Platelet antibodies can be produced as a side effect to certain
drugs, such as clopidogrel
(Plavix), or for unknown
Your doctor may also order blood-clotting tests, which includes
partial thromboplastin time (PTT) and prothrombin time (PT). These tests simply
require a sample of your blood. Certain chemicals will be added to the sample
to determine how long it takes your blood to clot.
If your doctor suspects that your spleen is enlarged, they may order
an ultrasound. This test will use sound waves to make a picture of your spleen.
It can help your doctor determine if your spleen is the proper size.
Bone Marrow Aspiration and Biopsy
If your doctor suspects that a problem in your bone marrow is
causing your low platelet count, they may order a bone marrow aspiration. During an aspiration, your doctor will use
a needle to remove a small amount of bone marrow from one of your bones.
A bone marrow biopsy may
also be ordered. Your doctor will use a needle to take a sample of your core
bone marrow, usually from the hipbone. It may be performed at the same time as
a bone marrow aspiration.
Is the Treatment for a Low Platelet Count?
The treatment for a low platelet count depends on the cause and
severity of your condition. If your condition is mild, your doctor may wish to
hold off on treatment and simply monitor you.
Your doctor may recommend that you take measures to prevent your
condition from worsening. This could include:
- avoiding contact sports
- avoiding activities with a high risk of bleeding
- limiting alcohol consumption
- stopping or switching medications that affect
platelets, including aspirin and ibuprofen
If your low platelet count is more severe, you may need medical
treatment. This may include:
- blood or platelet transfusions
- changing medications that are causing a low
- immune globulin
- corticosteroids to block platelet antibodies
- drugs that suppress your immune system
- a splenectomy, or the surgical removal of the
What Is the Outlook for People with Low Platelet Count?
Not everyone with a low platelet count needs treatment. Some
conditions that cause a low platelet count will eventually clear up. The platelet
count will return to healthy levels in those cases.
However, people with severe cases may need treatment. Sometimes,
a low platelet count can be fixed by treating the underlying cause. Your doctor
will work with you to come up with a treatment plan that helps you manage your